IRVINE — James Edwards Sr. had reason to be happy when he turned 90 last week.
The 21-screen movie house he'd opened here the day before his 89th birthday--the biggest theater in Orange County--had grossed $21 million in 12 months, which was $1 million more than he'd projected and just $6 million less than it had cost him to build the place.
Of the 50 theaters in America with 14 screens or more, receipts at Edwards' so-called Big One put it in the top 10.
It does have "a tremendous location" near the crammed convergence of the San Diego and Santa Ana freeways, notes Dan Mark, senior vice president of Entertainment Data.
Also, Mark points out, the 6,444-seat theater is surrounded by eateries (trendy and cheap alike), popular bars, places to shop and a huge electronic game arcade.
People in line to see "Star Trek: First Contact" last weekend said they do indeed like this one-stop array of entertainment. "We like shopping, of course, and the kids enjoy the video arcade. It's convenient," said Germaine Key, mother of two.
Having the same film available on several screens spells convenience, too, patrons say. And for Edwards, it keeps those cash registers ringing 'round the clock. "101 Dalmatians," for instance, is running on five screens this weekend, with starting times from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 a.m.
The Big One's 3-D Imax theater is another drawing card, Mark said. There are other Imax theaters, but many are at museums. In its first nine months, Edwards' Imax grossed $4 million, nearly one-fifth of the Big One's total for the year.
Of course, as industry observers had predicted, Edwards--who owns more theaters in Orange County than anyone--is to some degree competing with himself. Admission to his other theaters in the area has remained steady instead of increasing in line with a national trend.
Still, Edwards said, "we have increased the total revenue in the area because of the 21 megaplex."
The Irvine Co., which developed the eating-shopping complex around the theater, certainly isn't complaining.
"In terms of sales volume," said Rick Evans, president of the company's retail division, "we're at the level we predicted for when the [complex] was 5 years old." The company has decided to double the size of the complex in 1997, instead of waiting another year as originally planned.
Up to now, though, the Big One has had no competition in the area. That's going to change in the next year or two. The Mills Co., developers from Washington, D.C., plan to turn The City mall in Orange into a restaurant/boutique/kid-magnet mall similar to the one in Irvine--with a 30-screen AMC megaplex. Century Theatres is planning a similar center at the defunct Stadium Drive-In, also in Orange, and Pacific Theatres plans one at the now closed Anaheim Drive-In off the Riverside Freeway.
But Edwards isn't twiddling his thumbs. He's building three more centers. One will be on unincorporated land near Aliso Viejo; another will be in Brea. Both are scheduled to open by Thanksgiving '97--with 22-screen megaplexes.
Next summer, he plans to open a 20-screener in an entertainment center off the Golden State Freeway in Mission Viejo. His 12-screen Metro Point Stadium opened Wednesday in Costa Mesa, surrounded by shops and across the street from the South Coast Plaza mall.
One thing the Big One hasn't delivered, despite Edwards' promises, are two screens dedicated to art films. Some unconventional, independent movies such as "Big Night" have run on one screen, but most of them (such as "Feeling Minnesota" and "Moll Flanders") have been borderline mainstream and, Edwards said, none plays for more than four weeks.
Audiences for art movies at the Big One just aren't big enough, said Edwards, who does show art films at some of his other theaters (see accompanying story).
"A big enterprise like the 21 has to have high-volume business because expenses are high, and the $27-million investment was high," he said.
Jeremy Welman, the Big One's managing director, said that "any time we try to put [art films] into more of a mainstream theater, they don't do as well. At this theater, the action pictures do best. The demographics are very broad."
Indeed, the opening-weekend gross at the theater early this month for the Mel Gibson thriller "Ransom" was the second highest in the country, according to Exhibitor Relations researchers.
Edwards said he doesn't plan to cut back on art films at the Big One, but "they have to also be commercial, make a profit."
The profits Edwards already is making have prevented him from fulfilling another promise: live music and children's entertainment in the lobby. "The lobby is too full of people all the time," he said.
Contributing to this story was Times staff writer Greg Johnson.